The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

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One of the nation's leading historians offers a groundbreaking and provocative chronicle of America's political history since the fall of Nixon.

The past thirty-five years have marked an era of conservatism. Although briefly interrupted in the late 1970s and temporarily reversed in the 1990s, a powerful surge from the right has dominated American politics and government. In The Age of Reagan, Sean Wilentz accounts for how a conservative movement once deemed marginal managed to...

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One of the nation's leading historians offers a groundbreaking and provocative chronicle of America's political history since the fall of Nixon.

The past thirty-five years have marked an era of conservatism. Although briefly interrupted in the late 1970s and temporarily reversed in the 1990s, a powerful surge from the right has dominated American politics and government. In The Age of Reagan, Sean Wilentz accounts for how a conservative movement once deemed marginal managed to seize power and hold it, and the momentous consequences that followed.

Ronald Reagan has been the single most important political figure of this age. Without Reagan, the conservative movement would have never been as successful as it was. In his political persona as well as his policies, Reagan embodied a new fusion of deeply right-leaning politics with some of the rhetoric and even a bit of the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and John F. Kennedy's New Frontier. In American political history there have been a few leading figures who, for better or worse, have placed their political stamp indelibly on their times. They include Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt—and Ronald Reagan. A conservative hero in a conservative age, Reagan has been so admired by a minority of historians and so disliked by the others that it has been difficult to evaluate his administration with detachment. Drawing on numerous primary documents that have been neglected or only recently released to the public, as well as on emerging historical work, Wilentz offers invaluable revelations about conservatism's ascendancyand the era in which Reagan was the preeminent political figure.

Vivid, authoritative, and illuminating from start to finish, The Age of Reagan raises profound questions and opens passionate debate about our nation's recent past.

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Editorial Reviews

Douglas Brinkley
in The Age of Reagan—a smart and accessible overview of the long shadow cast by our 40th president—Wilentz largely abandons partisanship in favor of professionalism. Thus, the supposedly inflexible Reagan emerges here as the pragmatic statesman who greatly reduced the world's nuclear stockpiles…Undoubtedly, Reaganholics will carp that Wilentz has a selective memory (giving more ink to Iran-contra than Reagan's diplomacy with Margaret Thatcher), and progressives will denounce him for drinking Gipper-flavored Kool-Aid (equating Reagan with Franklin D. Roosevelt). But, in truth, the main thrust of Wilentz's thesis is fair-minded, with a slight center-left tilt.
—The New York Times
Kevin Phillips
Wilentz deserves kudos for biting off a challenge that few historians would have dared to undertake. All too many U.S. political chronicles have been written by specialists who present events in four- or eight-year segments minimally encumbered by a larger economic, political or historical context. By contrast, Wilentz goes for sweep, and in a number of ways achieves it.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Distinguished Princeton historian Wilentz-winner of a Bancroft Prize for The Rise of American Democracy-makes an eloquent and compelling case for America's Right as the defining factor shaping the country's political history over the past 35 years.

Wilentz argues that the unproductive liberalism of the Carter years was a momentary pause in a general tidal surge toward a new politics of conservatism defined largely by the philosophy and style of Ronald Reagan. Even Bill Clinton, he shows, tacitly admitted the ascendance of many Reaganesque core values in the American mind by styling himself as a centrist "New Democrat" and moving himself and his party to the right.

Wilentz postulates Reagan as the perfect man at the ideal moment, not just ruling his eight years in the White House, but also casting a long shadow on all that followed (a shadow, one might add, still being felt in the Republican presidential campaign today). While examining in detail the low points of Reagan's presidency, from Iran-Contra to his initial belligerence toward the Soviet Union, Wilentz concludes in his superb account that Reagan must be considered one of the great presidents: he reshaped the geopolitical map of the world as well as the American judiciary and bureaucracy, and uplifted an American public disheartened by Vietnam and the grim Carter years. While much has been written by Reagan admirers, Wilentz says, "his achievement looks much more substantial than anything the Reagan mythmakers have said in his honor." 16 pages of b&w photos. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Why don't books have accurate titles? You'd think this one would be about the evident influence of the 43rd president, acknowledged by members of both parties as having wrought major change. Instead, Bancroft Prize winner Wilentz (history, Princeton Univ.; The Rise of American Democracy) presents an extended survey of the past 30 years of Washington politics, writing from left of center as a liberal Democrat. Thus, in his treatment of the 1980s, Reagan gets a lot of blame and none of the credit. Wilentz judges the scandals and accusations of Reagan's administration harshly but is dismissive of those of the Clinton administration. By his own admission, he conducted no interviews for this book on recent history, and he offers no new insights. Worse, he makes these decades boring, notwithstanding their being filled with the kinds of events and personalities that should make history appealing. The results are more like a textbook that dutifully covers all the bases. Only the extended critical bibliographic essay, surveying the vast literature of the period, makes it worth consideration by larger libraries. Richard Reeves's President Reagan: The Triumph of Imaginationis a first-rate, albeit more narrowly focused, alternative. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/08.]
—Michael O. Eshleman Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Reviews
A distinguished center-left historian surveys U.S. politics over the past 35 years and pronounces Ronald Reagan, like it or not, the era's dominant figure. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the McGovernite Congress elected in 1974 appeared to restore liberalism to its accustomed place as the dominant force in American politics. In fact, the victory disguised years of Democratic Party confusion and intellectual decay. This, plus a growing network of conservative think tanks, institutes and media voices, and the feckless Ford and Carter presidencies, prepared the ground for conservatives to take over the Republican Party and then the country. The movement to shrink government, reduce taxes, reverse the country's moral decline, keep the military strong and fight communism found its perfect champion in the smiling personage of Reagan, who so transformed the terms of political debate that no successor has been able to conduct business without accounting for him. Wilentz (History/Princeton Univ.; Andrew Jackson, 2006, etc.) correctly calls for Reagan to be treated seriously by professional historians. He's wrong, though, to think his own political proclivities have not colored the analysis here. The author pays only grudging respect to Reaganism, tellingly defining it as a "distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology." He attributes Reagan's signal achievement-ending the Cold War without bloodshed-as much to Gorbachev. He treats the rest of the Reagan legacy-gutted regulatory agencies, regressive tax policies, politicized judiciary, polarized citizenry-as a set of indisputable, unfortunate facts that the Clinton interregnum barely disrupted. Wilentz declines to predictwhether Bush II will revise and extend conservatism's reach or spark a liberal resurgence. Still, the very fact that a historian of Wilentz's credentials and liberal disposition willingly deals seriously and at such length with Reagan means, in a Nixon-to-China sense, attention must be paid. An insightful analysis of the rise and reign of Reagan; a somewhat less successful explication of the meaning of Reaganism and its implications.
From the Publisher
"Eloquent and compelling.... [A] superb account." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review
The Barnes & Noble Review
Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz takes no prisoners. He has ranked George W. Bush among the absolute worst presidents and faulted Barack Obama's media supporters as dupes of "instinct" politics; in the 1990s he mixed it up with right-wingers trying to bring down President Clinton. Equally at home commenting on hip trends in music, social criticism, race relations, and current politics, Wilentz combines the reflexes of a street fighter with the formidable apparatus of American scholarship. In this work, which follows on the success of The Rise of American Democracy, his well-received earlier effort to contextualize Jefferson and Jackson in pre–Civil War America, Wilentz attempts to place Ronald Reagan's reinvigoration of the conservative movement and his presidency in the broad sweep of post-Watergate America.

Wilentz dutifully recapitulates the Ford and Carter presidencies but really picks up steam once his narrative puts Reagan in the White House. He observes that it was Reagan's geniality, humor, and likability that gave conservatives an opportunity to tell Americans what they were for (a variation on the American dream of opportunity) rather than continue with their failed tradition of ranting about what they were against. Wilentz is at his best when he discusses the tensions inherent in Reagan's message: on the one hand, Reagan invoked an American past of community and shared goals -- a Hollywood history embodied in It's a Wonderful Life and other films of that genre. On the other hand, Reaganism signified a new era of deregulated market capitalism, in which rampant individualism would put traditional local institutions and communities in jeopardy.

This is a book that brings clarity to events, always placing them in the context of Reagan's reworking of conservative ideas. Wilentz is especially good in telling an undertold story of deregulation of markets, detailing the effects this has had on the economy and the American consumer. He provides a full account of the rampant corruption at the highest levels of the Reagan administration. He demonstrates that Reagan packed the federal judiciary with hard-line conservatives and explains what that has meant for constitutional law. He is highly insightful in recounting the evolution of Reagan's thinking about the Cold War. Reagan began with a Manichean view and rhetoric about the "Evil Empire," but gradually, and with some prodding from Nancy Reagan, he moved toward détente (though of course he never used that term). Wilentz points out that without Gorbachev's willingness to engage in "New Thinking" on the Soviet side -- and his success in purging about 100 Soviet military officers standing in his way -- the Cold War would have continued.

The best chapter by far concerns the Iran-Contra affair. Wilentz provides a clear and concise account of the sale of arms to Iraq, underscoring the fact that from start to finish it was about hostages and not an overture to "moderates" in Teheran. Using excerpts from Reagan's diaries, Wilentz shows how deeply involved Reagan was in authorizing the arms sales as an intelligence operation, and in supporting the Contras with "third-party" solicitations for funding. He explains why the Tower Commission never got to the bottom of Reagan's involvement, and why the joint congressional committee that investigated the affair never attempted to impeach Reagan. Most chilling, he provides a roster of Reagan officials involved in Iran-Contra who subsequently assumed important positions in later Republican administrations. In Wilentz's view, the outcomes of both Watergate and Iran-Contra do not demonstrate that "the system worked" but rather that conspirators attempting to subvert the Constitution almost got away with it.

While this work will appeal to readers who want to understand Reagan's impact on America, the account of each event glosses over the details of governance. Carter's opening to China is briefly narrated, but there is no discussion of the constitutional issues involved in unilateral presidential abrogation of a defense treaty with Taiwan, which was essential for the rapprochement with China but upsetting to Republican conservatives such as Barry Goldwater (who sued unsuccessfully in federal courts). The enactment of Reaganomics is dealt with as a redistribution of income upward (which it was) but not as an innovative new budget process (known to political scientists as "early reconciliation" because it inverted the order of legislation to pass a binding policy resolution first and then enact tax and spending bills thereafter). The development of a "Star Wars" missile system is expertly discussed in terms of its impact on relations with the Soviets, but there is no discussion of the constitutional fracas that ensued with the Senate over Reagan's claim that he could unilaterally reinterpret a treaty negotiated by Nixon and consented to by the Senate (a claim that the Senate later rejected by passing a resolution stating that interpretation of a treaty must be based on its meaning at the time of Senate consent). The Iran-Contra chapter glosses over the controversy over whether the National Security Council was an "intelligence entity" covered by a law requiring the president or the director of central intelligence to inform Congress about intelligence operations. In fact, Reagan had signed Executive Order 10333, which specified that the NSC was "the highest intelligence entity" in the government, making his decision not to inform Congress unlawful. Similarly, when Wilentz discusses the CIA's own covert operations in Nicaragua, he doesn't point out that CIA director Casey had signed a memorandum promising to inform the Senate of any such operations in advance. Casey's subsequent violation of the "Casey Accord" was the spark that led Goldwater and other conservative Republicans in the Senate to condemn the CIA's conduct and insist that in the future the Senate be consulted in advance.

Throughout this book the language is pungent, the criticism is supported with evidence, and the judgments are sober: aid to the poor was cut but social spending increased; Reagan delivered next to nothing to the religious right except speeches; Reagan revived the sputtering economy but the boom was overstated; Reagan cut taxes but overall the tax burden did not decrease; Reagan was not one of the most popular presidents and lagged significantly behind FDR, Kennedy, and Eisenhower; Reagan was instrumental -- after many missteps -- in paving the way for improved relations with the Soviets. Throughout, Wilentz provides Reagan one-liners and jokes and discusses some of the loopier aspects of the man (such as the president's constant reference, when discussing nuclear weapons, to the possibility that, if "aliens" came to Earth from another planet, their arrival would unite earthlings in their common humanity). Although as a public intellectual Wilentz is a highly partisan Democrat, with this panoramic sweep of American history he has made good on his promise to the reader to "open up new lines of inquiry and debate." --Richard Pious

Richard Pious is Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor at Barnard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University. He is the author of The President, Congress and the Constitution (1984) and The War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law (2006), among other works. He has also published articles on military tribunals, interrogation of detainees, warrantless surveillance, and war powers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594169451
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/6/2008
  • Pages: 564
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Reader of over four hundred audiobooks, Dick Hill has won three coveted Audie Awards and been nominated numerous times. He is also the recipient of several AudioFile Earphones Awards. AudioFile includes Dick on their prestigious list of Golden Voices.
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Read an Excerpt

The Age of Reagan A History, 1974-2008
By Sean Wilentz
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Sean Wilentz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060744809

Chapter One

Memories of the Ford Administration

John Updike's satirical novel Memories of the Ford Administration, which was published in 1992, concerns a stumblebum, would-be promiscuous historian named Alfred Clayton. While struggling to finish a sympathetic biography of James Buchanan—one of the few presidents in all of American history more vilified than Nixon—Clayton agrees to write, as a distraction, a chronicle of his impressions and memories of Gerald Ford's presidency. Clayton's recollections revolve around the Boston Red Sox and sex—delightful sex, desperate sex, and default sex. "What had been unthinkable under Eisenhower and racy under Kennedy had become, under Ford, almost compulsory," he writes. But what about Gerald Ford? The politics of the mid-1970s had barely seemed to intrude on Clayton's consciousness. "For that matter, was there ever a Ford Administration?" he asks. "Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty."

Post-Watergate America lingers in Americans' memories as a jumble of bad clothing fads, shag haircuts, an embarrassingly puerile popular culture, and political stasis. The economy was in deep trouble. Much of what remained of the idealistic social movements of the 1960s descended into the mad violence of grouplets such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, before burning out altogether. Thefrenzied pursuit of consumerist pleasures—through electronic gadgets, mail-order rendezvous, and other life-enhancers—gave rise to what the journalist Tom Wolfe called "the Me Decade" and the historian Christopher Lasch judged more severely as a culture of narcissism. The poetic songwriter Bob Dylan, who had survived the 1960s and somehow kept his head, no longer heard freedom blowing in the wind; he heard something mindless and sinister:

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Dylan could have been berating a lover, the entire country, or both.

Yet there were also fresh breezes, or what seemed to be. In 1975, a dropout from Harvard named Bill Gates joined up with a friend, Paul Allen, to found a company they originally called "Micro-soft," with the utopian motto, "A computer on every desk and in every home." The feminist movement, the strongest outgrowth of the activism of the 1960s, was on the march following the Supreme Court's decision in 1973, in the case of Roe v. Wade, to strike down state laws that criminalized abortion. (A year earlier, Congress had sent an Equal Rights Amendment, which would ban civil inequality based on sex, to the states; and by 1977, thirty-five states had approved the amendment, leaving only three more to make it the law of the land.) Out of the morass of popular culture emerged, in 1976–1977, a televised series called Roots, on the ordeals and triumphs of one supposedly representative black family, beginning with the enslavement of an African, Kunta Kinte, in the eighteenth century. Based on a wildly successful book by the black writer Alex Haley, Roots attracted 130 million viewers to its final episode and appeared to be a milestone, marking how Americans had begun laying aside the racial stereotypes and hatreds that had disfigured their history. (Only later did charges surface that Haley had fabricated portions of the book that were purportedly true.)

New departures were also stirring elsewhere on the fragmented cultural and political scene. The feminists' success alarmed cadres of conservatives, including Goldwater's campaigner Phyllis Schlafly, who seized the opportunity to drum up a movement that would help revive the right and rally it around cultural issues. In 1973, another conservative activist, Paul Weyrich, established a new think tank, the Heritage Foundation. With Heritage at its disposal, Weyrich hoped that the political right would at last win the battle over ideas and policy planning long ceded to the liberals.

Even more prominent, although little understood at the time, were the struggles in Washington over how to govern after Richard Nixon's downfall. The press corps paid the most attention to liberal congressional Democrats who, emboldened by sweeping victories in the elections of 1974, moved to retrieve the power they said Nixon had usurped, especially over foreign policy. The White House did its best to fend off these efforts, while it battled Congress over pressing economic issues. But the Ford administration, which very much existed, was also riven from within—and haunted by Nixon's political ghost. Ford himself was determined to govern from the ideological center: he knew this would dismay conservatives and, in some instances, leave them "sputtering." Inside the White House, though, a faction consisting of former Nixon hands faced off against more moderate elements, pushed the administration to the right, and tried to create a mainstream conservative alternative to the Goldwater hard-liners, now led by Ronald Reagan. While they counseled a fight to the finish with Congress over economic issues, conservatives in the White House undermined the stature and power of the most celebrated holdover from the Nixon era, Secretary of State Kissinger, whose so-called realist approaches to domestic and world affairs they considered tired, timid, and unprincipled. Disgruntled traditional "cold war Democrats," who would soon be known as neoconservatives, also attacked Kissinger's policies. Reagan and the Republican right, meanwhile, regarded Ford's White House with dismay and, finally, with disgust.

Overshadowed by Watergate while facing new and bewildering problems at home and abroad, the Ford administration was torn by competing ideologies and political agendas. Its tribulations would leave a lasting mark on the next thirty years of American history.

A modest and easily underestimated man, Gerald Ford had gained the presidency not because of any executive expertise but because of his skills as a congressional insider in the backslapping, hard-driving style that once dominated Washington politics. His calm demeanor and reputation for integrity initially won him great credit from the Washington press corps as exactly the kind of leader the country needed after Watergate. Before long, though, commentators of differing persuasions began questioning whether he was up to the job.


Excerpted from The Age of Reagan by Sean Wilentz Copyright © 2008 by Sean Wilentz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: July 4,1976 14

1 Memories of the Ford Administration 26

2 Detente and Its Discontents 48

3 Jimmy Carter and the Agonies of Anti-Politics 73

4 Human Rights and Democratic Collapse 99

5 New Morning 127

6 Confronting the Evil Empire 151

7 "Call It Mysticism If You Will" 176

8 "We Have an Undercover Thing": The Iran-Contra Affair 209

9 "Another Time, Another Era" 245

10 Reaganism and Realism 288

11 The Politics of Clintonism 323

12 Clinton's Comeback 355

13 Animosities and Interest: The Impeachment of Clinton 382

14 Irreparable Harm: The Election of 2000 408

Epilogue: October 13,2001 432

Notes 461

Selected Sources and Readings 515

Index 545

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